Supporters of School of the Americas Watch will gather at the Benning Road gate today to recognized the 30th anniversary protest of Latin American soldiers training at the post in 1983, an organizer said Thursday.
“It’s going to be a peaceful vigil to commemorate the 30th anniversary of our protest against the Salvadoran soldiers at Fort Benning,” said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest and founder of SOA Watch.
Bourgeois estimated a handful of protesters with signs will be at the gate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The group didn’t apply for a permit because there will be fewer than 15 at the gathering.
Bourgeois said the protest against soldiers training at the Infantry Center was the foundation for starting the SOA Watch, the group which organizes an annual November protest calling for closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning. The former school, called the School of the Americas, was established in Panama in 1946 and moved to Fort Benning in 1984. It closed in December 2000 and reopened as the institute in January 2001.
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Last year, the institute trained 1,569 military and law enforcement personnel from 21 countries with a fiscal budget of about $10 million, said Lee Rials, a spokesman for the school.
Bourgeois said the protest on post came three years after Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed on March 24, 1980. Months later, four U.S. church women who had gone to El Salvador at the invitation of Romero also were killed by members of the Salvadoran military, he said. Two of the women were friends of Bourgeois.
After learning that 525 Salvadoran soldiers had arrived at the post for combat training, Bourgeois said he and two other protesters, Linda Ventimiglia and the late Father Larry Rosebaugh, protested in front of the post entrance before entering Fort Benning at nightfall. Bourgeois and others were dressed as high-ranking Army officers and armed with a tape player.
The group went near the barracks where the Salvadoran soldiers were housed, climbed a tree and waited for the lights to go out. They turned on the tape with the last sermon given by Romero at the cathedral in San Salvador. Romero had pleaded to the military to stop the killing a day before he was gunned down at Mass.
Charged with criminal trespassing and impersonating Army officers, Bourgeois and the others were sentenced to 18 months in prison by U.S. District Judge J. Robert Elliott.
“We are there just to commemorate,” Bourgeois said. “We will be there holding some signs to commemorate our actions 30 years ago, which really got the movement started.”
Rials didn’t know why the Salvadoran soldiers were on post, but their visit wasn’t connected to the School of the Americas that arrived in 1984. “This particular event had absolutely nothing to do with the school,” he said.
The institute had no information about the vigil. “I didn’t know they were going to be down here,” Rials said.